The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Polyglot Poetics: Transnational Early Modern Literature, part II

A guest post by Nigel Smith

I believe I am writing a book about the early modern city as a site of literary activity: the constant factor during the notable and extreme transformations and disruptions that took place between c. 1485 and c. 1700. There are other significant literary arenas to which I pay attention in a forthcoming study, but no one in Europe can rule without the consent of an urban population, and from cities emerge the texts of resistance, difference and revolution that are among my central concerns.

In this context, my concern is to show that early modern vernacular literatures depend on each other as well as on ancient literature. The true picture of early modern European literary activity is a large network with people and texts passing through the north-west territories: the crucible of the Low Countries and northern France. Within this framework, we can observe the beginning of the serious appreciation of English literature and drama in 17th century Europe.

By way of illustration here are two connected examples.

Poetry writing in the early modern world had an institutional life in literary societies of a number of different kinds: in Italy, Spain, parts of France, the Holy Roman Empire and the Netherlands. The two kingdoms of the British Isles had no such strong traditions of this kind. In the Netherlands, by contrast, this activity was famously located in the rederijkerskamers (chambers of rhetoric): rhetorical societies where members gathered in order to declaim verse, some of it dramatic and hence requiring the taking of parts.

Until the seventeenth century, the Dutch rhetorical societies were the major and senior centers of literary production, complete with an iconography in visual art, from which we know that beer drinking played an important role at least in some meetings. The rederijkers began in Flanders in the southern Netherlands and northern France but then grew and flourished in the north: they are typical of the rich culture afforded in the time of dominant Burgundian rule (c. 1363-1477). The English Everyman play (1st printed London, c. 1510-25) has its origins in the Dutch rederijkers piece Elckerlijc (c. 1490; 1st printed Antwerp, 1496).

The aim of these societies was to complete life with poetry and drama that suffused society with virtue, and taught the audience how to appreciate, access, and embody it. This was done not merely in discrete performances by one company but also in regular competitions or festivals of several chambers. Such culture is evident of the lavish details of the competition at Haarlem in 1606. The record of this meeting, printed at Zwolle in 1607, is complete with fold out engravings of the rederijkerskamers in costumed processions, and with a picture of the two level stage erected in the Grote Markt for the five-day performance competition as well as the texts of the plays.

Print depicting procession of Haestrecht chamber of rhetoric (‘Het Galis-blomken’). [Anon., Const-thoonende Iuweel, Zwolle: Zacharias Heyns, 1607)
Two level stage erected for Haarlem rederijkers competition.
The beginning of Haestrecht chamber’s play.

Other performances and competitions elsewhere were also recorded in print.

Anon., Den Lust-hof van Rethorica. Waer inne verhael gedaen werdt, vande beschrijvingen ende t’samen-comsten der Hollantscher cameren vande reden-rijckers, binnen Leyden geschiedt, den 26. Mey, des jaers 1596. ende de volgende dagen, met het gene aldaer gedaen, ende verhandelt is (Leiden: Francoys van Ravelengien, 1596)

Chambers of rhetoric had many of the typical social functions of a guild or confraternity, such as attending members’ funerals, holding collections for sick or impoverished members, and providing wedding presents for members getting married. Their competitions had themes: in the 1606 Haarlem meeting, they examined the question of rewards for those who help the poor, and punishment for those who do not. There was something of a provident society here: by the 17th century many chambers enjoyed the services of semi-professional actors, personagiën, who did not pay membership fees and worked in exchange for free food and drink (provided after rehearsals and performances) and for exemption from other civic obligations.

The building that currently houses the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, formerly a residence for elderly men, was built with the proceeds of a lottery in which chambers of rhetoric participated from all over the country. Political and religious division ran through the chambers, and international matters were also represented in rederijkers drama. A play performed in ‘s-Gravenpolder, Zeeland, explored the difficult relationship between Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex (seen as pro-Dutch and popular in the Netherlands), and written shortly after 1603.1

It is in this world of the rederijkerskamers that we find Theodoor Rodenburg (1578-1644, merchant, diplomat, poet and playwright, representative in Westminster of Emden and the Hanseatic League from 1601 until after June 1610.

Left, title page; Right, engraved portrait of Rodenburg above Latin verse. Theodoor Rodenburg, De Eglantiers Poëtens Borst-weringh (Amsterdam: Jan Evertsz. Cloppenburgh, 1619).

He was in close contact with Robert Cecil and formed a friendship with Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, previously co-author of the seminal English tragedy Gorboduc.

In the Netherlands Rodenburg saw his competition as none other than the highly accomplished P.C. Hooft, love poet and historian, playwright, soldier, governor and diplomat. Hooft was closely associated with the Netherlands Academy, founded in 1617, as a freestanding, non-ecclesiastical, non-state controlled playhouse and educational institution. It was also decidedly not the rederijkerskamer, but was designed to be more socially transformative. Although it only lasted for five years, the Academy would come to be seen as highly significant, and it exerted an ideological and (in terms of its theatrical innovations) a formal influence on Dutch society for many years to come. Moreover, its members were generally connected with other writers and public figures who were associated with the Regents or republican party in the state.

The Netherlands Academy’s most sensational, original and influential component was the remaking of ancient Greek drama as it was obviously seen to address public affairs and the matter of conscience. Sacrifice and the harrowing issues of conflicted wills and violence against the sanctity of human integrity were the subject matter, crystallized most effectively in Samuel Coster’s tragedy of 1617 Iphigenia, known as a political treatise as much as a play.

Samuel Coster, Iphigenia. Treur-Spel. Den Derden Druck (Amsterdam: Nicolaes Biestkens, 1626)

The first performance in 1617 was behind closed doors to a select audience, but in 1621, perhaps provoked to be bold, Coster staged the play for all comers. The response was rapid and the play would not be performed again until 1626, after a sea change in the political and religious atmosphere with the succession of stadholders. The central presence of execution or murder caused by a fractious religious caste is at the heart of the play, as Agamemnon is prevailed upon to yield his daughter up for sacrifice at Ulysses’s bequest.

By contrast, Rodenburg’s plays bucked classical rules, such as using five acts and having a chorus. Various plot strands were woven together as was the comic and the tragic. He began to distance himself from the idea of poetry governed by laws, as argued by Philip Sidney, even though he translated Sidney’s Defence and adopted it in 1619, along with parts of Thomas Wilson’s Art of Rhetoric (1560) and Lope de Vega’s poetic defense El Arte Nuevo de hacer Comedias en este Tiempo (1609) as a manifesto for the Eglantine Society, the Amsterdam rederijkerskamer in which he had become a leading presence.

In 1618 Rodenburg published and had performed the first Dutch revenge play, his translation/adaptation of Thomas Middleton’s Revenger’s Tragedy.2 Is Vindice, the revenger who so completely undoes himself a representation of, as Rodendurg saw it, Arminian deceit? In this Dutch version of the play, we witness the revenger and the action of revenge being mastered and overborn by the power of morality convention.

Left: [Thomas Middleton], The Revengers Tragaedie. As it hath beene sundry times Acted, by the Kings Maiesties Servants (London: G. Eld, 1607); Right: Theodoor Rodenburg, Wraeck-Gierigers Treur-spel. Op de Reghel (Amsterdam: Paulus van Ravesteyn, 1618)
Rodenburg added a ‘pre-tragedy’ in which a fencing master instructs a young would-be revenger how to overcome the desire to revenge, a view driven by the Stoic position that revenge will recoil on the revenger. In Middleton, the revengers Vindice and Hippolito, having finally been discovered, are sentenced to execution, and the play ends with no repentance, beyond Vindice stating that it is time for an exit since the revenge has been accomplished: nothing else seems to matter; the comment seems theatrically self-reflexive.

In Rodenburg’s translation Vindice repents, acknowledges the heinousness of his crimes, thereby returning our attention, as Ton Hoenselaars has argued, our attention to the perspective of the opening dialogue. A classicist might have found this an utter betrayal of the form and purpose of tragedy. But, as Hoenselaars shows, the theatrical space of the rhetorical society becomes the embodiment of virtue itself—a near-sacred civic space: ‘For Rodenburg the rhetorical chamber was the bastion of virtue, and the stage where the tragedy was played to the level of a definite, Christian morality. References to the theater therefore also served to discharge the tension inherent in the retaliation.’3

In Middleton the sound of thunder at the point of revenge is taken to be, in the projection of the revenger, a sign of divine approval: the audience is invited to see the action as providential. This is too much for Rodenburg and he dismisses the suggestion. Without exploring another important dimension in any greater degree here, it is clear that the translation appears to dilute Middleton’s specific description of female courage, thereby enforcing the gender hierarchy that the English playwright begins to challenge: ‘A wondrous lady, of rare fire compact;/Sh’as made her name an empress by that act.’ (Middleton, Revenger’s Tragedy, I.iv); ‘O manne-herte-vrouw/die selven name heur leven!/In Heroicks gheheughen blijft uw’naem beshreven.’ (trans. Rodenburg) Nonetheless, Rodenburg makes much theatrical capital of the intense emotional outpouring in Middleton’s play and its extravagant, ritualized theatricality. I think it is unmissable in the English play that revenge action, and revenge psychology, even as it is exposed or enacted, is also parodied and upended, turned into a source of laughter. That was very attractive to Rodenburg, as he made the tragedy fit his purposes.

The play may not merely be a response to Coster, but also to the kind of partially-reviled revenge in a play such as Hooft’s Gerard van Velsen (1613), which has, as Freya Sierhuis shows, a serious investment in Machiavellian political thought, and in which violence in the name of reason of state is debated and voiced by a major character. Rodenburg was interested in bringing to the stage something that Middleton’s version of revenge tragedy has in abundance: an exposure of the psychomachia of revenge. Hooft was no less devoted to revealing the futility of revenge but from an acutely different point of view. In the future of the early 1620s Rodenburgh would revile plots against the stadholder Prince Maurits in determinedly anti-Arminian, anti-intrigue, anti-revenge terms. It seems to be the case that we witness then between Rodenburg and Hooft two different kinds of disapproval of political violence, and hence two different versions of tragedy.

In some central ways The Revenger’s Tragedy also presents a context that is extremely difficult for a supporter of the House of Orange to embrace with comfort. All of the action is seen as the consequence of a corrupt and tyrannous duke, whose abuses of power and sheer exertion of lust generate the desire for revenge. The Revenger’s Tragedy is one of the great bastard plays, invested most strongly in the character of Spurioso. I quote a well known passage of Michael Neill, who himself quotes Thomas Lacquer: the name Spurio ‘derives from the Latin term spurius, which denoted … not just any illegitimate offspring, but one born from a noble but spouseless mother to an unknown or plebeian father.’4 Is this actually what you want in a rederijkeskamer?

While Prince Maurits was legitimate, he never married and was himself the father of several illegitimate children, including three by his mistress Margaretha van Mechelen, a Catholic minor noblewoman from the southern Netherlands, although he did state his intent to marry from his death bed (and so legitimize and marry off their children). The Dutch lawyer and Arminan supporter Hugo Grotius, at this point an enemy of Maurits, might be proclaiming the force of natural law but Middleton shows nature really at work in courtly society and there’s only so much that Rodenburg could have done to mollify this.5

Spurio is sometimes seen as an agent of just revenge against tyranny, but still the Duke remains able to uphold his own son Lussurioso’s lustful ways, even as he is poisoned by making love to an effigy, a particularly lurid moment. Perhaps this latter instance represents the collapse of revenge and tyranny into itself, but, intrigues and assassination plots aside, it does not sit well with obvious Orange parallels at that point in time, and when Maurits was holding his former political-military associate Oldenbarnevelt prisoner. Is the final rise of Antonio as the new Duke and dispenser of state justice (after the murder of Lussurioso, and the hilarious group mutual snuff-out of Supervacuo, Ambitioso, and Spurio) meant to uphold princely continuity after the legitimate purge of corruption? In the Dutch context of the Arminian Crisis I am not at all sure.


Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), humanist scholar and ‘father of international law’ was a friend of Coster and Hooft, as well as of Oldenbarnevelt; he strongly defended the Arminian position in print. Among many other texts Grotius translated into Latin the Phoenissae of Euripides (first printed in Paris, 1630) while imprisoned after the defeat of the Arminians, and claimed that the labour greatly helped him cope with what then looked like life-long confinement. The play is concerned with civil war and fratricide, as well as the intermeshed and vital concepts of citizenship and free speech. Grotius himself was in search of a different kind of drama entirely to both rederijkerskamer morality plays and Senecan violence.

Hugo Grotius, Hugo Grotius His Sophompaneas, or Ioseph. A Tragedy. With Annotations. Trans. Francis Goldsmith (London: John Hardesty, 1652).

It is no discontinuity to see in the preface to Grotius’ third play Sophompaneas (1635) a distinct respect for those searching for moderate and mediating solutions. The charge of adultery with Potiphar’s wife that sits at the heart of the play is a remote but clear memory in the play: (‘more free/Than his vile mistris, did despise/The glance of her adulterous eyes./With naked brests and wanton speech,/Who might command, did first beseech.’) (p. 6).6 This aspect relates to nothing directly in Grotius’ career, except that it might be said to represent the false charge against him that was the cause of his exile.

Rembrandt’s etchings of scenes from the play extended its life into the visual arts, radically broadening the arena of what we might consider theater, and making connections with other more frank representations of the Joseph story also made by Rembrandt, such as the unattractive etching of that very sexual temptation of Joseph to which the Chorus refers in act I. The imagery of bright color in the opening lines is symptomatic of the larger context of God’s way with mankind, and a contrast to the grim politics of the poems. The long wait of exile is laid out before us, exile in Egypt for Joseph as an administrator and for some time a prisoner. In the background is Grotius’ own long experience of imprisonment and exile, protested among others by the leading Dutch playwright Joost van den Vondel in a series of widely distributed topical poems. Grotius’s friend the leading scholar G.J. Vossius himself sent a copy of the play to Archbishop Laud, considerably raising the knowledge and reputation of Grotius’ in England.7

Through Joost van den Vondel’s Dutch translation the play entered the popular repertoire at the Amsterdam Schouwburg, the city playhouse, where it was performed a notable sixty times between October 1638 (still in the first year of the Schouwburg’s life) and 1665. Francis Goldsmith’s 1652 English translation contains his own prefatory verses that make the intention of the drama, over and against stage violence and the pagan tradition it inherited, clear:

Here no Medea her own Children kils,
Nor Hercules the Stage with horror fils:
The Poet your delight and profit seeks,
(Not borrowing a Fable from the Greeks
; )
But from the sacred Oracles of Truth,
Where chaster then Hippolitus a Youth
High Providence did out of Prison bring,

To save and rule a Nation and a King. (p. 14).

Grotius’ control of both metre and imagery makes the opening scene superb, well reflected in Goldsmith’s reasonably faithful rendering:

Some may admire the beams from Libanus,
The spotted marble, Groves within my house,
Of artificiall meat so many dishes,
The severall kinds unknown to Nile of Fishes,
Strange beasts from Africk, wch yet want a name,
And birds which from the Arabian desart came,

Wool from boughs by the Seres comb’d & brought,
At Babylon with skilffull needles wrought.
Bright pearls a present from the Indian shoar,
The guards about my person and my door.

        Vain, vain, these are, and for so great a weight
Too small a price. Under this diadems height
Lies a huge load of cares.  (pp. 1-2)

We can see here connections with the brief epic, Paradise Regained (1671), of that English polyglot poet John Milton, who, as a traveller in Paris, sought out his hero the exiled Grotius. But Joseph, Pharoah’s brilliant administrator, has to cope with failed crops and hunger riots in the country. And he must find out whether his brothers still bear the grudge against him that had formerly led them to sell him into slavery. In the play the Joseph story is conveyed by the chorus and others with great clarity, color and judiciousness, not least the effects of famine. Moreover, in the starving people’s brimming subversion is the reference to the political thought of the Dutch Revolt:

Potentiam timetis?  Haec nihil est nisi
Inane nomen, quod parit segrex pavor.
Quicunque terret singulos cunctos timet! )](ll. 570-2).

     (Do ye now stand in fear
Of Soveraigne power? this is nothing, but
An empty name, which in a fright may put
Those who walk by themselves, but he who shall
Awe single persons is afraid of all.)  (p. 19).

Beyond this point of awareness, Christopher Warren has offered an extensive reading of the play in the context of Grotius’s seminal contributions to international law.8

What a Senecan play of Shakespeare might present on the stage, Grotius puts into narrative that in performance would be orated, all at one remove from the large-scale historical events it describes. Joseph strategizes the avoidance of civil carnage after a siege through clement treatment (even using money to pacify). Early readers reported being so moved that they wept. The connection with the Low Countries predicament is obvious, the Arminian controversy even, and Grotius’s obvious response to his own harsh treatment. There’s even an imperial picture gallery full of improving pictures of Joseph’s trials, so that the presence of Dutch art is never far away, with a remote literary source in Virgil. Rembrandt is thus in a way in the play, even invoking that very drawing of Joseph’s refusal of Potiphar’s wife (ll. 717-23), and no doubt the narration lent itself to the tableau vivant displays that would be a feature of the new Amsterdam theater. When he read the Latin play Corneille would be inspired to compose Polyeucte. In other words, Sophompaneas was an influential international play by a theorist of international law that found its way into the vernaculars of Dutch and English with significant consequences. Grotius made his drama a startling enactment of thought, justice and effective governance, as opposed to the moralizing anti-revenge revenge drama of Rodenburg.  The reader or audience member is compelled to rethink their understanding of tragedy and its functions.




Anon., Den lust-hof van rethorica (Leiden, 1596).
Anon., Den spyeghel der salicheyt van Elckerlijc (Antwerp, c. 1500).
Anon., Everyman and its Dutch original, Elckerlijc, eds. C. Davidson, M.W. Walsh, and T.J. Broos (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007).
Anon., Const-thoonende iuweel, by de loflijcke stadt Haerlem, ten versoecke van Trou moet blijcken, in’t licht gebracht: waer inne duydelick verclaert ende verthoont wordt alles wat den mensche mach wecken om den armen te troosten (Zwolle, 1607).
Coster, Samuel, Iphigenia, Treur-Spel (Amsterdam, 1617)
Grotius, Hugo (Huig de Groot), Sophompaneas (Amsterdam, 1635); English trans. by Francis Goldsmith (1652); Dutch adaptation by Joost van den Vondel (1640). Annotated edn. with English trans., Arthur Eyffinger, De Dichtwerken van Hugo Grotius, I.4 A/B (Assen/Maastricht: Van Gorcum, 1992).
Hooft, P.C. Geeraerdt van Velsen (Amsterdam, 1613).
[Middleton, Thomas], The Revengers Tragaedie (London, 1607).
Rodenburg, Theodoor, Wraeckgierigers treur-spel (Amsterdam, 1618).

Abrahamse, Wouter, Het toneel van Theodore Rodenburgh (1574 – 1644) (Amsterdam: AD&L, 1997).
Hoenselaars, Ton and Abrahamse, W., ‘Theodore Rodenburgh and English Studies’, in Roding, J., and van Voss, L.H., eds., The North Sea and Culture in Early Modern History, 1550-1800 (Hilversum: Verloren, 1996).
Hoenselaars, Ton, ‘Het spel van wraak en moraal in het Engelse en Nederlandse toneel van de renaissance’, De Zeventiende Eeuw, 7 (1991), 113-26. Available online at
Dixhoorn, Arjan van, Lustige geesten. Rederijkers in de Noordelijke Nederlanden (1480-1650) (Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2009).
Grootes, E.K., and Schenkeveld-Van der Dussen, M.A., ‘The Dutch Revolt and the Golden Age, 1560–1700’, in Theo Hermans, ed., A Literary History of the Low Countries (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2009), 143-291.
Hüsken, Wim, ‘Queen Elizabeth and Essex: A Dutch Rhetoricians’ Play’, Leeds Studies in English, n.s. 32 (2001), 151-70.
Laqueur, Thomas, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Camb. MA: Harvard UP, 1990).
Neill, Michael, Putting History to the Question: Power, Politics, and Society in English Renaissance Drama (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).
Ramakers, Bart, ‘Walk, Talk, Sit, Quit? On What Happens in Netherlandish Rhetoricians’ Plays’, in Butterworth, Philip and Normington, Katie, eds., Medieval Theatre Performance: Actors, Dancers, Automata and their Audiences (Cambridge, England; Brewer, 2017), 35-52.
Sierhuis, Freya, ‘Therapeutic tragedy: compassion, remorse, and reconciliation in the Joseph plays of Joost van den Vondel (1635–1640)’, European Review of History, 17 (2010), 27-51.
———–, The Literature of the Arminian Controversy: Religion, Politics, and the Stage in the Dutch Republic (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015).
Warren , Christopher N., Literature and the Law of Nations, 1580-1680 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)


Dr. Nigel Smith is William and Annie S. Paton Foundation Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature at Princeton University; previously he taught in the University of Oxford. His major work has been in the fields of seventeenth-century literary and historical studies: Marvell, Milton, British civil wars and revolution literature, radical and Dissenting culture. Dr. Smith’s NEH-Folger project, entitled “Polyglot Poetics: Transnational Early Modern Literature,” offers a major, field-changing study of the vernacular literatures of western, central and southern Europe from the late fifteenth to the late seventeenth centuries: a redefinition of the emergent area of transnational studies, and a recalibration of the literary relations of early modern Europe in order to integrate the crucial international staple of the Netherlands.

  1. Wim Hüsken, ‘Queen Elizabeth and Essex: A Dutch Rhetoricians’ Play’, Leeds Studies in English, n.s. 32 (2001), 151-70.
  2. The play was formerly attributed to Cyril Tourneur.  At present Middleton’s authorship is not entirely accepted: see Brian Gibbons, ed., The Revenger’s Tragedy (London : A & C Black, 2008).
  3. Ton Hoenselaars, ‘Het spel van wraak en moraal in het Engelse en Nederlandse toneel van de renaissance’, De Zeventiende Eeuw, 7 (1991), 120: ‘Voor Rodenburgh was de rederijkerskamer het bastion der deugd, en het podium waar het treurspel werd gespeeld de spiegel van een vastomlijnde, christelijke moraal. Verwijzingen naar het theater dienden dan ook om de aan de vergeldingsgedachte inherente spanning te ontladen.’
  4. Michael Neill, Putting History to the Question: Power, Politics, and Society in English Renaissance Drama (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 157-8.
  5. See also Richard McCabe, Incest, Drama, and Nature’s Law, 1550-1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993).
  6. Eyffinger’s translation catches more of a blunt threat in Potiphar’s wife’s words than Goldsmith’s: ‘freer than his mistress – he had despised her passionate looks and adulterous intentions, her bare breasts and wanton speech, which soon turned into threats in abuse of her power’: ‘cum servus domina liberior sua/flagrantes oculos mentis aduterae/nudatosque sinus verbaque mollia/- at mox imperii iure minacia –‘ (ll. 163-66), De Dichtwerken van Hugo Grotius (Assen/Maastricht: Van Gorcum, 1992), I, 4 A/B 167.
  7. Arthur Eyffinger, ‘Introductory Essay’, De Dichtwerken van Hugo Grotius, 71.
  8. Christopher N. Warren, Literature and the Law of Nations, 1580-1680 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), ch. 6, ‘From Biblical Tragedy to Human Rights: International Legal Personality in Grotius’s Sophompaneas and Milton’s Samson Agonistes.’

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